WASHINGTON — Partisan animosities and election-year politics flared in Congress on Thursday as GOP senators joined conservative counterparts in the House in attacking Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) for criticizing the rising influence of the religious right on the Republican Party.
Coming on the heels of a testy partisan debate in the Senate over hearings on the Whitewater controversy, it underscored the polarization in Congress as it struggles to find increasingly elusive compromises on health care and other major reforms during the countdown to the November mid-term elections.
The skirmish was touched off earlier this week when Fazio, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, attacked the GOP and the rise of the "intolerant . . . religious right." His comments came after several victories by religious conservatives in Republican Party primaries and conventions.
Clearly concerned about predictions suggesting that the GOP may pick up 20 to 30 House seats in November, Fazio began the new Democratic line of attack by warning voters to beware of "the radical right" and the way its candidates are forcing more mainstream Republicans "to the fringes" of their own party.
Charging that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and other socially conservative groups are using "subterranean tactics" to subvert the Republican Party, Fazio said that the religious right now controls the GOP political apparatus in at least 15 states. Americans ignore the growing political strength of these "radical fringe" groups at their peril, he warned.
On Thursday, the GOP's big guns on both sides of the Capitol fired back, accusing Fazio and the Democrats of "religious bigotry" and, in a letter signed by all 44 Republican senators, asked President Clinton to disavow his own party's attacks.
"We write to ask that you now join with us in repudiating the remarks of those who use terms like 'fire-breathing Christian radical right' and who cheapen our democracy through religious bigotry," the senators wrote.
"It's becoming increasingly clear that some members of the Democratic Party are resorting to campaign tactics based on religious bigotry to divert attention from (the Democratic Party's) own failings," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) added on the Senate floor.
In the House, Republican Policy Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois denounced what he said is a "calculated smear campaign" by the Democrats. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) recited the dictionary definition of McCarthyism and said it would be replaced in the future by a new word: "Fazioism."
Fazio, in response, accused the Republicans of distorting his remarks and said their reaction "confirms that we really hit a nerve."
"We certainly appreciate that Christians are participating in politics across the spectrum but what we are referring to is the radical right . . . whose views are outside the political mainstream," he said.
"This is not something we're manufacturing. This is not hysteria. This is what is happening," Fazio added.
Republican leaders, he said, want "to have it both ways" by harnessing the electoral strength of the evangelical Christian movement without ceding real influence to it--a strategy that he asserted will backfire.